LEWISTON – It was so cold Tuesday morning that 14 out of 42 school buses didn’t start or broke down, setting off a flurry of phone calls and social media messages to ensure students weren’t standing too long in the cold.

The problem was frozen fuel lines. After pulling fuel filters on buses, “they were frozen, indicating moisture,” schools Superintendent Bill Webster said.

“Six wouldn’t start, another eight after completing their first run just stopped,” he said. “We ran extra buses responding to parent calls.” Stranded students were picked up.

“It’s distressing,” Webster said. “I am very sorry for the angst and safety concerns it caused parents and students. We need to do better. This winter has demonstrated we need to be prepared for extremes in weather. We have some work to do.”

Between 6 and 7 a.m., the temperature in Lewiston was 17 degrees below zero, National Weather Service meterologist Tom Hawley said. By 8 a.m. it was 13 degress below zero.

Bus routes to several schools were affected, but McMahon Elementary School’s routes were the hardest hit, Webster said.

Webster made a series of posts early Tuesday urging parents not to let their children remain outside waiting for a bus than more than 20 to 25 minutes. He also posted updates on bus routes on the Facebook page for Lewiston Public Schools Superintendent.

As of late Tuesday morning, “as far as I know every student is safe and accounted for,” Webster said. “I’m very pleased to see our attendance numbers are all above 90 percent, higher than it has been on many days this winter.”

Lewiston bus service is provided by Hudson Transportation. Initially fuel from Lewiston Public Works, which is where Hudson gets its fuel, was thought to have had water in it. Public Works fuel was checked and it had no water, Webster said.

It’s now believed the cold caused condensation in fuel lines of the deisel engines, which don’t fare well in extreme cold, Webster said. “Hudson is having its corporate office analyze this further both to better understand what happened, and prevent it from happening again.”

Webster learned of the problem when he got a call at 7:20 a.m. from Hudson. “We need to have information earlier,” Webster said. “We need to do a better job of communication.”

Jodi Wolverton, president of McMahon’s PTO, said for her family no bus “wasn’t a big deal. I’m home.”

She praised her bus driver, Sue Bechard, for warning students. After Bechard’s bus wasn’t running, Bechard drove around the neighborhood in her vehicle “at each stop to tell the children standing outside that the bus wasn’t working. She told them to go inside, “Wolverton said.

Bechard has been the neighborhood’s bus driver for seven years. She always does an excellent job, Wolverton said. “She calls the kids her kids. I love it.”

At Hudson’s Birch Street headquarters, Bechard declined to say much. “It’s my job. I love the kids,” she said.

At the same time that Wolverton’s children came in saying their bus driver said no bus was coming, Wolverton read Webster’s tweets telling parents 12 or more buses weren’t running.

Wolverton and another neighbor “filled our cars” with neighborhood students and drove them to school.

Geiger parent Corrina Tancrede said her children waited for the bus for 30 minutes. Because it was so cold, she waited with her children at the end of their driveway in their warm car. “They’re young,” she said.

After no bus came, “my husband drove our children and a neighbor to school. It wasn’t a big deal.”

If buses are delayed, “there should be some system notifying parents,” Tancrede said. “I know plenty of other children who were standing out in the cold waiting.”

Webster agreed, saying he’s planning to make changes.

When the School Department goes to bid for its bus service this fall, Webster hopes to get buses equipped with GPS tracking systems.

He’d also like to see technology developed so parents can track online where their child’s bus is to prevent anyone from waiting long outside.

Martel Elementary School Principal Stephen Whitfield cautioned that alerting parents through instant messages may not work for up to 40 percent of households, because phone numbers parents gave the school for a cellphone is no longer valid or has run out of minutes.

On Tuesday, Martel students on two buses were affected. One bus was 20 minutes late, another broke down after it made its Lewiston Middle School run, Whitfield said.

There were no problems with afternoon bus runs, Webster said.

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